Hotels chains – picking the right one and how to become a loyal guest

Welcome to the Gadling hotel month! There is no better time of the year to learn more about hotels, how to pick the right hotel and how to become loyal to one chain. In today’s article, I’m going to teach you as much as I can about picking the right brand and how to become (and stay) loyal to one chain. Before we continue, let me explain something really simple about the hotels:

The world is made up of 3 different kinds of hotels:

  • Chain hotels that are part of a large hotel group
  • Chain hotels with just one brand
  • Stand alone hotels, B&B’s and any other property not part of a group

We’ll start with chain hotels that are part of a large hotel group – you’ll find some of their logo’s printed above. These are the leaders of the hotel world (sure, I may have missed a couple), but the bottom line is that a handful of companies own and/or operate a huge amount of the hotels in the world. There are some pretty big advantages to each sort of hotel operation, and when you pick the right one, you’ll increase your chance of having an enjoyable stay.
Chain hotels that are part of a large hotel group

Chain hotels are the ones you are most likely to come across when searching for a hotel. Chain hotels are the Starwoods and Hyatts of the world. These chains have been around for years, and the largest of them operate as many as 3000 properties.

Of course, none of these companies own every single one of their locations, but they do provide marketing, booking systems and branding for anyone who meets their standards and would prefer owning a branded hotel over just another “hotel”.

The most important reason to pick a hotel that is part of a large chain is simple – consistency. Granted, a Hyatt in Spain may not look exactly the same as a US Hyatt, but the hotel will be held to the same standards as its US counterpart. Picking a consistent hotel is great if you want to feel a little more at home. There is something oddly comforting about driving through a weird city, then arriving at your favorite hotel brand. Outside may look, smell and sound different, but inside the hotel, its all vaguely familiar and reassuring.

The largest multi-brand hotel chains in the world are:

  • Starwood – operates the Sheraton, W Hotels, Aloft, Four Points, Le Meridien, Westin, Element and Luxury Collection properties
  • Hilton – operates the Hilton, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton, Homewood Suites, Home2 Suites, and Waldorf Astoria properties
  • Hyatt – operates the Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Park Hyatt, Hyatt Resorts, Andaz, Hyatt Place, Hyatt Summerfield Suites and Hyatt Vacation Club properties.
  • Marriott - operates the Marriott Hotels & Resorts, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Renaissance Hotels, Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, TownePlace Suites, SpringHill Suite and Marriott Vacation Club properties
  • Choice Hotels International – operates the Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban, Econolodge and Rodeway Inn properties
  • Wyndham Worldwide – operates the Wyndham hotels, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8, Wingate, Baymont Inn, Microtel, Hawthorn Suites, Howard Johnson, Travelodge and Knights Inn properties
  • Intercontinental Hotel Group – operates the Intercontinental hotels, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites properties
  • Carlson – operates the Radisson, Park Plaza, Country Inns and Suites and Park Inn properties
  • Kimpton hotels – operates the Hotel Palomar, Hotel Monaco hotels as well as a variety of Kimpton boutique properties

These chains offer something in almost every price range – take for example the hotels that are part of the Intercontinental Hotel Group. This chain can offer you a $300/night room in their Intercontinental hotel, or a $59/night room at a Candlewood Suites. The hotel you pick will depend on the level of comfort you want, the amenities you desire and of course, your budget. Whichever way you go, this one hotel chain will have 7 different hotel brands to pick from, often with up to 30 or 40 properties within a 50 mile radius.

Hotel brands offer more variation than just price and comfort. The hot trend in the hotel world is offering lifestyle hotels. Most chains have opened, or are working on opening at least one brand of hotels focusing on a younger, hipper guest.

Starwood has been quite successful in this segment with their Aloft hotels. This spinoff from their (equally successful) W brand offers rooms in a modern environment – you won’t find the old worn carpet at these destinations. A similar brand is being developed by Starwood with a focus on extended stays – their Element hotels are a spin-off from the Westin brand, and offer rooms with a focus on healthy living. 6 Element hotels are already open, with another 20 opening in the coming years.

A good example of another new hotel brand is the Cambria Suites concept which we reviewed here on Gadling. This hotel clearly shows how a hotel operator designed a new brand, and built a fantastic hotel around it.

A great benefit of a chain with multiple brands is the ability to earn and redeem points within the chain. If you are a frequent guest at an affordable Hilton property, you can save up all those points, and redeem them for some free nights at a Conrad. Turning cheap stays into free stays at a really expensive property is a fantastic perk.

Here are the pros and cons of picking a large hotel chain with multiple brands:

PROS:

  • Consistency amongst brands
  • Ability to earn points/free stays within the various brands
  • Easy booking system for multiple brands on a single booking site

CONS:

  • Consistency tends to become boring for frequent guests
  • Prices are often higher than local unbranded options

Chain hotels with just one brand

Single brand hotel chains are owned and/or operated by just one company. Instead of offering multiple brands, they focus on one famous name, and all hotels adhere to that name and the standards set by the brand.

Best Western is a good example of this – they operate over 4000 different hotels, in 80 countries. Unlike the chain hotels mentioned previously, Best Western does this under just one name (technically they also offer several upscale properties called Best Western Premier).

The largest / most popular single-brand hotel chains in the world are:

  • Best Western
  • La Quinta Inns and Suites
  • Four Seasons
  • Mandarin Oriental

Here are the pros and cons of picking a large hotel chain with multiple brands:

PROS:

  • Large number of properties
  • Ability to earn points/free stays within the brand
  • Amenities and services are usually very consistent from hotel to hotel

CONS:

  • Often large differences in quality between various properties
  • Despite similar amenities and services, prices can fluctuate greatly between locations


Stand alone hotels, B&B and any other property not part of a group

The third and final segment of the hotel industry is the stand alone hotel. These hotels usually operate just one or two hotels under their name, and are not part of a chain or other “mother brand”. These properties vary from a 2 bedroom B&B to a 1500 monstrosity in a busy downtown area.

Stand alone hotels can often be a much more enjoyable place to stay as you don’t have to deal with corporate rules. That said – smaller chains don’t have the support and technology often found within larger chain hotels. Investments in new technology are not as common, especially in the booking and reservation systems.

Here are the pros and cons of picking a single hotel or a very small chain:

PROS:

  • Hotels often offer a more comforting environment, without the busy branding of a large chain
  • Properties can often be more personal for frequent guests

CONS:

  • Frequent guest programs are only available at one property making it harder to earn points/free stays
  • Booking systems are often primitive or hotels do not participate in large third-party booking engines like Expedia or Hotels.com

Picking the right hotel is not too hard – if you just need a hotel for your yearly trip, your most important factor is going to be availability, amenities and budget. A vacation hotel won’t be better or worse for you if it is part of a larger chain. If you are a more regular traveler, then it really does start to pay to pay attention to your brand loyalty.

With generous bonus awards and perhaps an affinity credit card, you could be on your way to a free stay after just 4 or 5 nights. I recommend signing up for every program you can, and trying to avoid staying at a hotel without being part of the frequent guest program. Even if you never stay with them again, adding your membership number to your reservation will save you the hassle of having to request the points after your stay.

If you are traveling for work, be sure to pick a hotel chain committed to offering the services and amenities you need – don’t settle for a chain that has the balls to charge for Internet access.

If you start to stay at a chain on any regular basis, you’ll slowly start to see the rewards of that loyalty. Besides the obvious stay bonus, you may be eligible for a room on a “preferred floor”, and you may even get access to the hotel lounge. To burst your bubble and dreams of the hotel penthouse – a real valued guest is someone who’ll stay with the hotel chain over 75 nights a year.

That entry level silver or gold card is going to be generally useless. Before you move all your dollars to one chain, do the math and check whether it is going to be worth aiming for the top tier. If you only have 10 nights planned all year, the platinum or diamond tier is going to be way out of your reach.

Once you do hit a high(er) tier, it may be time to shop around for a new chain. When I traveled for work, I was top tier with 3 hotel chains, but when one of them screwed up (badly), I decided to see whether brand X was interested in my business. As it turns out, they were, and a quick fax of my statement with hotel brand Y got my status “comped”, as well as some other perks that made it worth my while to switch my business.

Bottom line is that you should pick a hotel that makes you feel welcomed – if you don’t like the vibe of a specific hotel brand or chain, find something that fits your style. With so many new hotel concepts, it isn’t too hard to find the style that fits you best. You no longer have to settle for a boring room with a flower pattern comforter and a loud window mounted AC unit.